Seeing red: a way to affect the world

Image of Peter Aspden

There is an eerie quiet in Sir Howard Hodgkin’s studio, considering that it is just yards from the hordes that queue to enter the British Museum and not so far from the clamour of Tottenham Court Road. But here, weirdly, all is virtually silent. The studio in which he works used to be a dairy, and pays a kind of homage to its past use with the creamy shades of its walls, which adds to the sense of calm. It feels not unlike a New Age hotel, although there are no life-giving crystals or ethnic canopies overhead, indeed no colours in the space at all. This may be considered strange for such a consummate master of the palette as Hodgkin, until you see that all his works in progress are there but turned discreetly towards the wall. The great colourist needs his bleached environment, one supposes, to think clearly.

One colour in particular has been dominating his thoughts recently. On Thursday, Sotheby’s New York holds its “Red” auction, a charity sale organised by Damien Hirst and Bono, the proceeds of which will help support HIV/Aids programmes in Africa (see our Sale of the Week). The duo asked for donations to the auction and Hodgkin obliged with a recent painting, “House”, which is estimated to raise up to $750,000. At 75, Hodgkin may be considered the veteran of the show, which features the more glamorous work of contemporary art idols such as Banksy, Jeff Koons and Hirst himself.

Hodgkin is still in an ambivalent frame of mind about the auction – not over its “impeccable and marvellous” intentions but over his exposure to the kind of crude financial measuring-up that will inevitably take place. “There are always pros and cons to posh charity auctions,” he says philosophically. “Damien knows that his work is very valuable, and mine is not worth nothing but it is not in the same financial league as his. I wondered if I really wanted to stand up and be counted.”

The art world has turned into something of a celebrity circus, I say. “Not my part in it,” he replies instantly. “This is my art world,” and he points all around, to his monochrome surrounds. I ask if he would have liked to be a young artist today, making his mark in a world that can barely slake its thirst for cultural novelty. “There are too many ifs in that question.” There is a long pause. “It would have been nice, to have people buying my work. When I was a young artist, there was a strong air of being patronised by collectors. They thought they were doing us a favour.” It seems to be the other way around now, I say. “I’m not so sure of that,” he replies. “Now there is not such a great difference between being a young artist and a young collector.”

Hodgkin speaks his words quietly, with deliberation and laced with the kind of deadpan humour that only really makes itself felt in reminiscence, a couple of hours after the conversation. He is frail, still feeling the effects of a recent illness (“not serious”), and economical with his observations, happy to respond monosyllabically when he thinks further embellishment is superfluous. The sumptuous expressionism of his art is not to be found in conversation, but why would it? Hodgkin doesn’t like to mix words and images, consistently declining to discuss the substance of his work, or indeed comment on other people’s judgment of it.

I say that in the introduction to the catalogue of Hodgkin’s Tate Britain show in 2006, Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota remarks that “serenity is rare” in the artist’s work. What does he make of that? He points immediately to his studio assistant, who is sitting in with us. “Andy had better answer that.” Andy prefers to keep out of it. I say I’m not sure it’s true. Hodgkin shrugs. “To answer that I would have to able to criticise my own work. Which I cannot do.” Surely if it was created a long time ago, he could bring some objectivity to bear on it? “Let’s forget art – who can look at his early work with an objective eye?” Maybe one can see the mistakes, the gauche moments? “Maybe. There have been plenty of those.”

But then he immediately does go on to criticise one of his own works, the giant mural he produced, by means of a photographic enlargement of a painting, for the drum of London’s Imax cinema in Waterloo. “It was a failure,” he pronounces while we are talking about his public art projects. Does he only realise that now? “I realised it at the time. But it had gone too far. I couldn’t say ‘stop’ in the middle of it. It gave people a lot of pleasure but it was a failure.” He doesn’t elaborate further.

We return to the early part of his career. He famously said, after coming back to London from New York, where he had been evacuated during the war, that to be an artist in England was like being “squeezed out of the wrong end of a tube of toothpaste”. How so? “In London [compared to New York] you were meant to be an amateur, not a professional. I remember going to the Slade [School of Fine Art] to give a lecture, and the subject I chose was ‘How to be an artist’. The first thing I wanted to talk about was money, because nobody would ever mention the word.” Hodgkin’s lecture was interrupted by a commotion in the hall. “Suddenly, to my great surprise, [the sculptor] Tony Caro and his wife got up and walked out.” So the ideal of the gentleman-artist was that strong? “That wasn’t very gentlemanly,” he replies, quick as a flash.

If New York hardened Hodgkin’s view of his vocation, his many trips to India have arguably exerted a greater influence on the man’s work itself. He became a collector of Indian art after being introduced to it as a 14-year-old by a teacher. I ask if he still collects. “I always say I don’t, which means that sometimes I manage to get something. I’m always looking. It never goes away.”

Another one of his early quotes that often gets repeated is his view that painting was “an endangered species”. Does he still think that? “Probably more so than ever.” Does he think it will ever become extinct? “No,” he says firmly. Because? “Because there is a mystery about painting which greatly appeals to people, partly because they think they can do it themselves.” Does he find that people really still think that? “Yes. And it is as meaningless as it ever was.”

We talk for a while about the YBAs (“described by one person I know as ‘Why Be an Artist’,” Hodgkin puns) and he suddenly declares that he thinks that visual art is currently at a high point. In terms of profile, reward, popularity, I ask? All of those, he says. But what about the quality – is the work any good? “It must be.” It is hard to discern whether there is any deadpan humour going on here. Don’t all the buyers that have made contemporary art such a hot arena right now view their purchases as investments or status symbols? “I don’t think so. They might be buying [the artworks] because they believed in them.”

Which brings us back to the “Red” auction. I ask what ultimately persuaded him to get involved with it. “All artists love to feel that they can affect the world in some way. Damien has.” A lot of people considered him an opportunist, I say. “I am sure he is not that. I don’t know him very well but he seems to me someone who believes in art. You can’t do those things cynically.”

I say that the auction, taking place on Valentine’s Day, promises to be a glitzy affair – a long way, I need not add, from the lofty, earnest atmosphere of Hodgkin’s studio. “Yes, I hope so,” he replies. “I hope my picture isn’t just going to be flung away. It’s one of my best pictures.”

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